Sunday, June 06, 2004

American News | 06/06/2004 | New rules trap immigrants with old secrets

American News | 06/06/2004 | New rules trap immigrants with old secrets

New rules trap immigrants with old secrets

Sleep soundly, America. Our government has finally tracked down Fidencio Resendiz, and is diligently taking action to boot him back to Mexico.

Not that Resendiz, who came here 20 years ago, was terribly hard to find. He's been living in Homestead, Fla., working construction jobs and raising a family. In fact, he'd be a model candidate for President Bush's recent proposal to grant legal status to thousands of illegal immigrants now employed in the United States - except for one dark secret.

No, Fidencio Resendiz isn't an agent of al-Qaida. As far as authorities can tell, he's never plotted a single act of terror or advocated overthrowing our government or even littered in a national park.

But 10 years ago, at age 23, he got caught with a single marijuana joint in his pocket. It was the first and last time he was ever arrested. This happened in Missouri.

Interestingly, Missouri considers Fidencio Resendiz never to have been convicted at all. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor possession charge and received a suspended sentence. After a year on probation, his record was expunged by the state.

However, by the time Resendiz applied for permanent U.S. residency, Congress had passed tough new immigration rules that made him and thousands of others retroactively eligible for deportation.

It is the same controversial law that ensnared Kari Rein, an Oregon woman whose outlandish case I wrote about in April. A Norwegian citizen, Rein has lived in the United States legally for 15 years. But last December, she was detained and then jailed by immigration agents as she returned home from Europe with her husband and two children.

The reason: A computer check had turned up a 1993 arrest for growing six marijuana plants. She and her husband had pleaded guilty, paid a fine and served out their probations.

Eleven law-abiding years later, the Department of the Homeland Security decided Rein was a threat, and that she should be sent back to Norway. Recently though, Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski pardoned Rein for the 1993 pot conviction, wiping her record clean.

The very next day, U.S. immigration officials said they would "terminate'' their efforts to deport Rein to Norway. In Florida, Fidencio Resendiz is fighting deportation by trying to point out the government's own maddeningly inconsistent policies. In federal court, first offenders found guilty of simple possession of small amounts of marijuana may have their charge dismissed after a year's probation, leaving no record. By law, the case cannot be considered a criminal conviction "for any other purpose'' - including deportation proceedings.

But, like most first-timers caught with a joint, Resendiz was prosecuted in a state court.

Unfortunately, Resendiz didn't apply for permanent residency until after 1996, when the new immigration rules were enacted. A heavy crackdown began after 9/11, and since then even first-offenders in state drug cases have become targets for deportation.

Resendiz says he deserves the same break offered to first-offenders in federal court. Immigration officials say he doesn't qualify, because he wasn't prosecuted by the feds. In other words, not everybody in the same fix gets the same second chance. It all depends on your luck.

When the ruling comes from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, it will impact many deportation cases.

Whether it will stop the bumbling excesses of the so-called war on terror is doubtful.

At a time when we're warned that more al-Qaida fanatics are loose within our borders and planning another bloodbath, it's idiotic to be spending a single penny of the federal budget - or a single minute of an immigration prosecutor's time - pursuing the harmless likes of Kari Rein or Fidencio Resendiz.

Such cases will seem worse than foolish if the latest al-Qaida threat proves real. They will seem tragic, for what was wasted.

Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Leonard Pitts did not write a column this week.


Post a Comment

<< Home